By J.R. Miller
Forgiveness of sins does not take us into heaven. We must stay yet longer in this world, because our work here is not finished. We must be tempted again. But we should seek, while we walk through earth's dusty ways, to keep the cleansed garments clean and white. Very fitting, then, is this prayer after we have found forgiveness, "Bring us not into temptation."
Yet the form of the petition is surprising. It is a prayer to our Father, and we plead, "Bring us not unto temptation." Surely God would not bring his children into temptation. He is good and loving, and his will for us is never our endangering or our harming--but always the keeping of our life unspotted from the world. We are sure that God never inclines us to do evil. James says, "Let no man say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no man."
Yet it is James who says also, "Blessed is the man who endures temptation: for when he has been approved, he shall receive the crown of life." Again the same apostle says, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into manifold temptations; knowing that the proof of your faith works patience." It is clear, therefore, that good may come out of temptation. It is not said that it is blessed to be tempted--the beatitude is for him who endures temptation. We are not told to count it joy merely when we fall into manifold temptations--but when we have gathered the fruit of the proving, in new endurance.
It will help us to understand the spirit of the prayer--to remember that the word "temptation" does not mean primarily to allure to sin. To tempt--is to try, to test, to prove. New ships are proved before they are entrusted with lives or treasure upon the sea. Anchors are tested before they are allowed to become the only hope of a vessel in the peril of a storm. God proved Abraham, putting his faith and obedience to the test. After the trial the angel said to him, "Now I know that you fear God." Abraham had stood the test. Jesus was tempted before he began his public ministry, that he might be a proved deliverer.
The temptations to which we are exposed continually, are primarily provings, testings, to see whether we will be true to God--or not. Indeed there is no experience that we meet in life which is not in a sense a testing. Every moment we are required to make a choice, and our choices prove us. Here is a duty; shall we do it--or not? Here is a call to service; shall we accept it--or decline it? Here is an impulse to something worthy; shall we yield to it--or repress it? We have money; shall we use it for God--or shall we clutch it for ourselves? Sickness tries us; shall we bear it patiently, and take from it the gifts of God it brings us--or shall we chafe and repine, and leave our sick-room harmed by the experience?
Even sweet and pure human love tests us; many are held back by it--from self-sacrificing duty. Thus Peter, in love for his Lord, sought to keep him from going to his cross. "Get behind me, Satan" was our Lord's answer. Many others in the warmth and tenderness of their affection, have become the tempters of their friends, and ofttimes have kept them back from costly duties or perilous service to which God had called them.
Thus testing always implies the possibility of failure. There is no experience, in which we may not sin. There is a wrong alternative, in every call to that which is right. Instead of doing the duty--we may neglect it. Instead of making the self-denial or sacrifice--we may decline it. Instead of resisting the sin--we may yield to it. Temptation always brings an opportunity to overcome, to grow stronger. But if we fail to use the opportunity we sin.
Looking at temptation in this broader way--gives a new meaning to the prayer, "Bring us not into temptation."
Part of Christian faith is the committing of the life to God's guidance. We put our hand into God's in the morning, and we ask him to lead us through the day. We know not what experiences may come to us--and we ask him not to bring us into sore testings. The prayer is a request that in the doing of God's will for the day--we may not be brought into places where it will be hard for us to be faithful.
Some tell us that it is cowardly to offer such a prayer. A soldier should not shrink from battle, for this is the very business of his life, that to which he is called, that for which he enlisted. Only in battle can he test the qualities of his heroism or train himself for the service to which he has devoted himself. A soldier who has never been in a battle may be brave--but no one can be sure of it--he cannot yet be sure of it himself; his courage has not been tested. An untempted virtue is only a possible virtue; it is not certain yet that it will stand the test. We must meet temptation, and win the crowns which are only for the overcomers.
Is it not cowardly, then, to plead with God any morning not to be brought that day into places where we must fight? Are we to wish to be soldiers who shall miss conflict, danger, and hardship? Is that the kind of heroism Christ would teach his follower? He himself did not seek such a life. He shrank from no conflict and sought to be spared from no hard battle; and would he have us plead not to be brought into trial?
There is a sense in which this view is correct. If we are following Christ fully we will not hesitate to go with him into any experience, however perilous it may be. "He who saves his life shall lose it." Yet so much is involved in temptation, such possibilities of defeat and failure are dependent on the outcome, that we dare not desire to enter into it. It is presumptuous, to clamor to be led into the conflict. More than once Jesus warned his disciples to watch, that they might not enter into temptation. He knew how inadequate their courage and strength would prove in battle with the evil one, how their faith would fail in the moment of assault. We read of soldiers sick of camp, and chafing to be led against the enemy--but the Christian who is eager to be tempted--is very foolish. Temptation is too terrible an experience to be rushed into, unled by God.
It is right, therefore, for us to shrink from sore testing, not to be disobedient to any call of God--but even to ask to be spared the experiences, knowing something of the fearful peril there is for us in them. If Peter had gone to Gethsemane that night, praying this prayer, "Bring me not into temptation." Instead of boasting that it was not possible for him to fail--he would not have fallen.
May we not say, indeed, that our Lord's own prayer in the Garden was precisely in the spirit of what the taught his disciples in this petition to ask? He pleaded there that he might not be brought into the terrible trial on whose dark edge he was then kneeling. Yet he did not plead rebelliously. He did not decline to accept the cup if it was not possible for it to be taken away. He only prayed that it possible, if it were in accordance with his Father's will, he might not be led into the terrible trial.
Our prayer should be in the same spirit. While we ask that we may not be brought into sore testing--we still express our readiness to accept God's will for us, though it be that we go right on into the heart of the struggle. The petition certainly teaches that it would be presumptuous for us to seek temptation, to ask to be led into it, or to rush into it, unbidden by God. If we do this, we court peril and we have no promise of divine protection. When God leads us anywhere, we go under his sheltering care and need not fear. But when, without his guidance, we go of our own will into places of danger, we take our life into our own hands. Soldiers led by their commander into battle are doing their duty; their place is in the danger. If they fall--they fall at their post, they fall under the divine shelter. But if one who is not a soldier, having no call to enter the battle, no duty on the field, presses forward among the fighting ranks--he is without promise of divine keeping, and if he falls he has thrown his life away.
The same is true of all who in any way expose themselves to peril. The mother, the nurse, the physician, whose duty it is to be with the child sick with diphtheria--are not to think of the danger. God brought them into the place of peril, because their duty was there, and they may leave to him the matter of their keeping. But anyone who, uncalled by duty, exposes himself to contagion in the sick-room, is tempting God and cannot claim the divine protection. If he contracts the disease, he cannot speak of his illness as providential, resigning himself to it as something God has sent to him. God did not send it to him. He went where he had no divine call to go, into danger when he had no duty there, and he can claim no promise of help.
We should never shrink from any experience of testing into which duty brings us. If it is the will of God that we should stand where our principles or our character must be tested, we need not hesitate to meet the trial, for we shall have the divine protection.
But if we venture into places of temptation when duty does not lead us there--we put ourselves outside the divine shelter. One of our Lord's temptations was that he should cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, trusting to the promise of God to give the angels charge concerning him. But to this suggestion our Lord's reply was, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God." This answer implies that the promise of protection, avails only when we are walking in the way of divine guidance.